You’ve heard it on your favorite podcast. It’s all over social media… and you probably know someone swears by it. We’re talking about CBD, of course, the seemingly magical solution to a myriad of issues. Elite athletes in particular are voicing their support for CBD, citing benefits from chronic pain management to reduced performance anxiety.
But there’s no way this wonder drug does everything people claim, right? As with most things, the truth lies somewhere between the devout believers and the naysayers. Since athletes demand so much of their bodies on a daily basis, holistic nutrition and recovery modalities make a huge difference. If eating your vegetables, getting enough sleep, and creatine supplementation enhance performance, it’s not too far-fetched to extend that idea to CBD. Especially when you learn how it interacts with the body.
That’s why we’ve put together a complete guide to CBD for athletes to help you sift through the chaff. We’ll talk about what it is, how it interacts with the body, how it benefits athletes, and the ways you can take it. Let’s begin.
What is CBD?
While CBD comes from marijuana, it’s not going to get you high. It’s actually an acronym for cannabidiol, a compound found in the Cannabis sativa plant, completely separate from the hallucinogen - that’s THC. While recreationally and medically legal in some states, the THC-rich form of this plant is still illegal nationwide. But don’t worry - most CBD products come from hemp, a strain of Cannabis sativa grown to contain less than 0.3% THC. It’s the law.
Both THC and CBD have naturally occurring counterparts within the human body called endocannabinoids. It turns out there’s a whole network of these compounds that send signals across your body, much like your hormones and neurotransmitters. CBD, therefore, adds to what’s already there. It’s kind of like taking a vitamin tops up your health. CBD tops up your cannabinoid levels, interacting with receptors and hormones along the way.
CBD and your endocannabinoid system
In 1988, when a team of scientists was doing research on mammalian brains, they discovered completely new receptor sites for exogenous cannabinoids - those that come from outside the body. It wasn’t until 1992 (yes, that recently) that this research expanded, uncovering two endocannabinoids - 2-AG and anandamide. These discoveries sparked exciting research into a whole web of compounds and receptors, forming an entire, previously unknown regulatory system.
So if all of this happened in the nineties, why is it such a big thing now?
Well, obviously it took a while to fully grasp how CBD, THC, and other plant-based cannabinoids interact with this system. And to be honest, we’re still not completely sure. Don’t forget that marijuana was completely illegal until recently. Even as states changed their policies, a taboo still hangs around the plant. Even so, scientists have done enough research to note some basic functions of the endocannabinoid system. It helps control appetite, pain sensations, inflammatory responses, and nervous health. All of these can be modified by taking CBD
The Complex Issue of CBD use in Athletics
Despite its general safety, CBD has a complex relationship with athletes. Most elite athletes can’t put the same stuff in their bodies as everyone else due to drug testing. Even seemingly innocuous things like cold medication and supplements require rigorous testing, as they might contain banned substances. For years, any and all parts of marijuana were banned in competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Even out of competition use was frowned upon, as it takes a while to get out of your system. It doesn’t matter your intention. If you test positive for a banned substance at any point, you’re out.
Recently, however, WADA changed its views on CBD. Underneath their list of in-competition banned substances, it now says this:
“The following cannabinoids are prohibited:
Natural cannabinoids, e.g. cannabis, hashish and marijuana,
Synthetic cannabinoids e.g. D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabimimetics.
EXCEPT cannabidiol. That’s exciting, right? It means you can take CBD freely and still compete at the top level of your sport. We’ll get to why you’d want that in a minute.
But it’s not that easy. Just like any supplement, there’s a chance your CBD products contain trace amounts of THC, which still remains prohibited. Even if they’re produced from hemp, there’s still a tiny amount present in the parent plant. CBD isolates guarantee absolutely no THC (or any other cannabinoids), but those claims aren’t regulated by the FDA. As with anything, you’re taking a risk. If you’re getting drug-tested and want to take CBD, buy isolates from a company with impeccable manufacturing processes that does third-party testing for contaminants.
The Benefits of CBD for Athletes
Train hard, recover harder. That’s the mantra of any elite athlete. Hard yards on the field, in the gym, or on the court wear our bodies down. In the short term, that’s purposeful. We push past our limits so our bodies can adapt and grow. If this goes on for too long, however, you get diminishing returns.
Overtraining leads to exhaustion. Repeated stressors without adequate recovery lead to chronic pain and fatigue. Even our internal systems go out of whack - we can’t sleep, cortisol is at a constant high, and our resting heart rate increases. In periods of intense training, you need to get in to “rest and recovery” mode as soon as possible. Taking CBD can help.
CBD and Recovery
Training and competition naturally put us under pressure. In response, we react. Our sympathetic nervous system switches into high gear, releasing adrenaline, increasing circulation, and sharpening our senses. These interactions, however, trigger inflammatory responses within the body, especially when they become chronic.
CBD actually inhibits adrenaline and noradrenaline secretion, helping us relax. Further research shows that CBD decreases inflammatory markers in rats. While none of this replaces active recovery, proper nutrition, and a good night’s rest, the science is promising.
While CBD’s interactions tend to occur in the brain, its pain-reducing benefits work differently. Your body is full of vanilloid receptors that respond to noxious stimuli. (In fact, they’re behind the spicy burn of capsaicin in peppers). Specifically, CBD mediates the TRPV1 receptor that responds to high temperatures and acidic pH levels. Researchers confirms these effects after measuring pain levels during intense heat and small incisions in rats. As heat comes with inflammation, and exercise-induced lactic acid lowers pH levels, these receptors are perfect targets for pain management in athletes.
Anxiety and Stress
Performance anxiety, packed schedules, and pressure to succeed all contribute to stress. Too much nervous energy on game day leads to choking. Chronic anxiety limits energy levels, sleep, and recovery. Fortunately, CBD can manage your emotional and mental state.
CB1 and CB2 receptors, parts of the endocannabinoid system, act as docking stations for free CBD. After CBD binds to these receptors, it suppresses the release of excitatory neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate. It also works with serotonin and dopamine to trigger feelings of calm and satisfaction. Studies have even shown that ingesting CBD before a stressful situation can reduce immediate sensations of performance anxiety.
Plenty of athletes and laypeople alike chalk their CBD use up to anxiety management. Given that it has little to no side effects, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Sleep is a magical, naturally performance-enhancing solution. There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to facilitate recovery from training or prepare for competition. Sleep improves mood, cognition, muscle growth and repair, and so much more. Taking CBD can both help you fall asleep and stay asleep so you’re prepared for the challenges ahead.
CBD actually induces sleepiness by elevating adenosine levels in the brain. (For reference, caffeine works by clearing adenosine away. CBD does the opposite). Further shows that CBD continues to work long after you’ve hit the hay. In rat studies, those taking CBD ended up with more time spent in REM and slow-wave sleep. Sleep-deprived humans showed decreased disruption in REM sleep as well. The scientific evidence is still fresh, but early research shows CBD’s promise for improving sleep quality.
Reaction time, memory, and cognition
As it counters all types of inflammation, CBD contributes to overall nervous system health. Instead of slowing you down, like it’s cousin THC, this cannabinoid could help you react more quickly. By narrowing focus and moderating arousal, it helps isolate sharp changes in scenery - triggering a lightning-quick reactions. Because CBD slows neurodegeneration, it leaves you with healthy signaling pathways that can be fortified through training. Early animal studies even suggest that CBD facilitates recovery from traumatic brain injury. While we hope that never happens, it’s a risk athletes face. Taking care of your head with a little CBD can go a long way.
Are there any side effects?
Taking CBD is widely regarded as safe by the medical community. Even up to 1500mg/day seems tolerable for most. But, as with anything, not everyone responds the same. Some of the reported side effects include:
Interference with other medication, especially with liver metabolism
Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
Reduced blood clotting
How do I take CBD?
Due to its huge popularity, there are countless ways to take CBD now. Stores boast CBD-infused cocktails. Farmer’s markets sell CBD-infused desserts. Beauty companies create CBD skin creams. Regardless of how you take it, make sure you buy from a trusted, reputable source. Just because something has CBD in it doesn’t mean it’s either safe or will work.
Below some of the most common ways to take CBD oils and isolates:
If you want something potent and straight to the point, choose tinctures. They’re actually alcohol-based extracts that allow for much faster absorption. Most people pop the droplets underneath their tongue, much like taking medicine. However, you can add tinctures to food and drink if you so please. Whatever floats your boat.
Just like your morning fish oil, you can take CBD as a pill. Just note that your CBD has to be digested first, which you risk degradation of the compound in the liver. But it also means you get more of a sustained-release effect. If you’re taking the right dose on a daily-basis, capsules can be a great option.
Topical Creams and Balms
I actually use CBD-infused topicals for localized pain relief. They’re not great for whole-body health issues, such as fighting off Alzheimer’s. But they can help get your old knees moving again after two really hard sessions. However, CBD doesn’t absorb too well transdermally. That’s why some of the best creams mix CBD with other compounds to both enhance absorption and pain relief.
Smoking and Vaping
Recently, vaping has come under some intense criticism. Chronic vaping has been linked to serious health issues in kids and young adults, so that’s obviously cause for concern. A lot of these dangers are assumed to be due to toxic additives and not the CBD itself, but still. Vaping remains the most efficient, fastest-acting way to get quick relief from anxiety and stress, but proceed with caution.
Final Thoughts - Does CBD Work For Athletes?
In the right situations, CBD can help athletes deal with recovery and pain management. These, in turn, promote performance, but don’t count on CBD to completely drive your workouts. Take CBD like you would any other vitamin or mineral - as part of holistic self-care.